Harry Leslie Smith saw himself as an ordinary man, but to others he was an inspirational figure. Chris Bond met him and here he looks back at his remarkable life.
I first met Harry four years ago when he visited Yorkshire to talk about his new book, Harry’s Last Stand – a powerful and unflinching memoir that became a bestseller.
He was travelling around the country giving talks and, even though he had been living in Canada for almost 60 years, he wanted to return to Yorkshire, the county of his birth. He was 91 years old.
I interviewed him in a hotel bar in Bradford. He told me he’d just visited the street he and his family once lived in and that it was now home to a mosque.
It’s the kind of change that many people fear, but not Harry – he embraced it.
He had seen many changes during his lifetime. He lived through some of the most tumultuous events in modern history. Born in Barnsley in 1923, he survived the Great Depression – unlike his older sister who succumbed to tuberculosis and was buried in a pauper’s grave because his family couldn’t afford a proper one – and the grinding poverty of his youth.
During the Second World he joined the RAF as a wireless operator and spent time in Germany as the fighting in Europe drew to a close.
He survived this conflict and amidst its ruins he found the love of his life, a German girl called Friede. They married in 1948 and remained together until her death just over 50 years later.
Harry wasn’t your typical tub-thumping activist, he was polite and quietly spoken, but at the same time he wasn’t afraid of speaking his mind – as anyone who followed his feisty exchanges on Twitter could testify to.
He had lived through the darkest chapter in human history and described walking through the ruins of Hamburg as the war ended: “It was absolute devastation, I’d never seen anything like it. There was 20 miles of the city just completely eliminated and a lot of the working class areas were worst hit,” he said.
Despite having grown up in the slums of Barnsley and Bradford, he wasn’t prepared for the squalor he encountered.
“I hoped that I’d never see such suffering again but I saw German children who were orphans picking up cigarette butts and trying to sell them in the railway station.”
Such experiences remained with him and latterly he feared the post-war world his generation had fought so hard to create was in danger of disappearing.
That’s why he embraced social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook so he could talk to younger people and listen to what they had to say.
As well as writing books and newspaper articles, including for this newspaper, last year he created a fundraising page on Twitter to raise money for a tour of refugee sites.
He wrote at the time: “I’m spending the last years of my life touring the #refugee hotspots of the world to find a solution to this crisis.”
The main post on the fundraising page said: “For close to one hundred years, I have witnessed humanity at its best and worst. And right now in this present age, mankind is in one of its most difficult stages. It’s why I need your help today, so that I can complete the last great challenge of my existence before old age consumes me.
“I want to travel to as many refugee hotspots as possible in Europe, North America and possibly Australia to document this preventable tragedy that may lead us to another war as gruesome as the one I helped fight against Hitler over 70 years ago.”
He finished by saying: “I will make sure that this last great task of my life will be a fitting testament to my generation’s commitment to leaving the world a better place. Thank You, Harry.”
He was the voice of our conscience and it is us who should thank him.